BY: Anthony Caingles

IOM staff Saw Thandar with village child she and Myanmar Artemisinin Resistance Containment (MARC) team members saved from malaria. © IOM 2014

By Anthony Caingles

At last year’s Thingyan Water Festival (and New Year) in Myanmar, two alert volunteers of IOM’s community-based Myanmar Artemisinin Resistance Containment (MARC) Project for Mobility Impacted Communities in Mon State put the festivities on hold when they noticed a child displaying symptoms of severe malaria.

Following project protocol, the volunteers rushed to the home of the local IOM Community Project Assistant, IOM staff Saw Thandar, who alerted her team that the child should be brought to the nearest hospital right away. There were complications to transporting an ill child in the middle of the Thingyan Water Festival, however.  That year, 12 people were killed and 689 others were injured during the festival – where revellers do not only throw a lot of water around but imbibe much alcohol as well.

Riding her motorbike, Saw made her way through the crowds, evading water fights along the wet streets, and crossed the Bilin River by boat in the middle of heavy rains. She finally arrived at Pa Yar Seik village, where members of the local Village Mobility Working Group (VMWG) were already standing by to take her to the child.

Finally, they reached the child’s home. Saw and the MARC team, however, faced another crucial obstacle: resistance from the parents to have the child admitted to a hospital. There were two reasons for this: a reluctance to have the child taken away from their home on such a festive family occasion, and an apprehension with regard to the financial costs of this. They did not have the money to match IOM’s financial contribution for hospital and associated fees.

Clearly understanding the danger to the child, without hesitation, VMWG members and MARC volunteers pooled money from the family’s neighbours – who quickly raised the amount needed.  The parents finally gave their permission.

At the hospital, Saw explained the family’s financial situation to the hospital staff, who waived the costs of whatever medicines would be needed by the child. For three days, the IOM staff travelled to and from the hospital to bring food that she cooked herself for the family. Local community members also brought provisions while two MARC volunteers stayed at the hospital and provided round-the-clock assistance to the family.

The child recovered very well after three days at the hospital, owing to the timely detection and quick referral of what turned out to be a severe case of malaria. Without a doubt, without the selfless acts of Saw and the volunteers, things could have ended very, very differently.

Wherever you are in the world, at least 50% of the people living there are facing some risk of malaria. Myanmar has the highest burden of malaria among the countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

IOM has been working on malaria prevention and treatment programs in Myanmar since 2007, with a focus on migrants and mobility impacted communities in high prevalence areas. Though the prevalence of malaria overall in Myanmar, and in the region, has been decreasing, it is often migrants and mobile populations that continue to be at high risk due to exposure and lack of access to adequate prevention and treatment. IOM has been developing methodologies to specifically target migrants including migrant mapping, establishing so called “Village Mobility Working Groups” and focusing on migrant employment sites such as mines and rubber plantations.

The emergence of drug-resistance in border areas is posing a major threat to efforts to control the disease leading public health officials to advocate for further resources to scale up efforts from disease control approaches to hopes of eradicating the disease entirely. If these efforts are to be successful however, it will be essential to have increased focus on providing services to migrants and mobile populations throughout the entire region.

The sense of community, responsibility, and service fostered by IOM’s MARC project is the strength that underlies its success in saving lives and preventing the spread of malaria. More than being just a project, the MARC approach to malaria prevention and treatment has become a culture in communities touched by it.